The question of divine infallibility in the prophets (and in the imams as well in Shi'ite doctrine) is considered to be a highly controversial issue in the jurisprudential tradition.
Many hadiths contradict every jurisprudential conclusion that insists on obedience to the Prophet.


THE TERM ‘INFALLIBILITY’ is completely absent from early Islamic historiography, and textual evidence on the events of this early period Islam clearly indicate that the early Muslims did not view the Prophet Muhammad as absolutely ‘infallible’ in his words and deeds. In fact the opposite was the case, in that they interacted with him with a flexibility that suggests that they were able to confer with him on what he said and debate matters, or indeed reject his opinions. The understanding, in Islamic jurisprudence at least two centuries later in time, concerning infallibility and what it means as regards the Prophet Muhammad, entirely runs counter to what the texts of the Qur’ān, the hadith and history evidence. For what the texts of the Qur’ān and hadith relating to the Prophet and events of his life indicate is that the mutual relationship between the Prophet and his followers demonstrated a great degree of spontaneous, flexible, human interaction in words, deeds, reactions and objections. They are also subject to clear standards and provisos and social, economic and chronological considerations.

It appears that this flexible sphere of mutual dealings between the Prophet Mohammed and the early Muslims increased to the point that early Muslims did not shy away from adjudicating a matter with someone other than the Prophet Muhammad or even from rejecting his judgement, a situation which called forth a revelation of Qur’ānic versus to restore affairs to a reasonable norm in the dealings between the Prophet and those followers who believed in his call. The Qur’ān was very clear in describing only the first struggle of the Islamic call against those who disbelieved in it, it was just as clear in describing the early Muslim-Muslim struggle as well. We find in the Qur’ān verses such as:

And they say: We believe in Allah and the messenger, and we obey; then after that a faction of them turn away. Such are not believers [Qur’ān XXIV,47]

And among mankind is he who worshippeth Allah upon a narrow marge so that if good befalleth him he is content therewith, but if a trial befalleth him, he falleth away utterly [Qur’ān XXII,11]

And when they appeal unto Allah and His messenger to judge between them, lo! a faction of them are averse [Qur’ān XXIV,48]

Hast thou not observed those who were forbidden conspiracy and afterward returned to that which they had been forbidden, and (now) conspire together for crime and wrongdoing and disobedience toward the messenger? [Qur’ān LVIII,8]

Indeed, in many verses the tone of the Qur’ān becomes raised, indicating the acrimony of this early Muslim-Muslim conflict, as can be seen in the following:

But nay, by thy Lord, they will not believe (in truth) until they make thee judge of what is in dispute between them and find within themselves no dislike of that which thou decidest, and submit with full submission [Qur’ān IV,65]

Al-Tabarī in his commentary on this last verse states:

The Almighty means: ‘the fact is not, as they claim, that they are believing in what is revealed unto you, while they are seeking adjudication with the tāghūt[1] and are turned away from you when they call upon you, Muhammad.

Early Muslims did not view the Prophet Muhammad as absolutely ‘infallible’

In commenting upon this verse al-Tabarī goes on to cite the incident whereby one of the Ansār openly said to the Prophet: “Act justly, oh Prophet of God, even if he is indeed your own cousin” – this was after the Prophet had adjudicated between him and al-Zubayr ibn al-ʽAwwām the Prophet’s cousin, something which aroused the ire both of the Ansārī and the Prophet.

The writer of this article has dealt with the problem of prophetic infallibility among the early Muslims in his book Naqd Nass al-Hadīth[2], as well as with the problematic issue of definitions and conceptions regarding the prophets in the Islamic perception. A number of examples were given there that demonstrate that ‘prophetic infallibility’ – a concept which came to be taken for granted as self-evident in the minds of Muslims of later eras – was not so self-evident or clear in the minds of the early Muslims. This is revealed by events of this period and by hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, all of which cast doubt on the universality of this conception and whether this comprehensive characterisation is valid. Indeed, the early Muslims used to repeat, within earshot of the Prophet Muhammad, the phrase: “God has forgiven you your sins of the past and the future” – the very phrase which forms part of a Qur’ānic verse:

 That Allah may forgive you your sins of the past and the future and complete His Favour on you, and guide you on the Straight Path [Qur’ān XLVIII,2]

What confirmed the ‘status’ of the Prophet for the early Muslims was the ‘divine forgiveness’ which he enjoyed. This expression, in another way, confirms the possibility all by itself of the Prophet committing sins and errors, by the very evidence of divine forgiveness frequently being granted him. If infallibility were present in its comprehensive sense, as some Islamic denominations claim, then the Prophet would have had no need for forgiveness since, quite simply, there would be no sin of his in the first place that needed divine forgiveness, whether in the past or in the future. For the early Muslims this state of affairs extends to the point of questioning the very process of Revelation itself. We find that the Prophet Muhammad accepted such a ‘human’ objection concerning the ‘divine’ communication. In his Sahīh the scholar Muslim cites a hadith that clearly indicates the degree of ‘freedom’, if that is the correct expression, which the Companions had to question the Prophet even in matters concerning the communication of the Message itself, where the assumption, claimed by each Islamic sect without exception, is one of absolute divine infallibility. In his Sahīh Muslim cites Abū Hurayra’s hadith in which he relates to us how they had lost sight of the Prophet Muhammad after he had slowed his pace and wandered off from among them. Abū Hurayra found him by a garden wall, whereupon the Prophet said to Abū Hurayra, after passing to him his shoes:

O Abū Hurayra, put on this pair of shoes and whomsoever you find behind this wall sincerely in his heart bearing witness that there is no god but Allah, tell him the good tidings that he has gained paradise.

When Abū Hurayra departed with the Prophet’s shoes to communicate this message to the Muslims, the first he came across was ‘Umar ibn al-Khattāb, and on learning what Abū Hurayra had been tasked with, ‘Umar punched him in the chest and felled him. Abū Hurayra said: “I returned to the Prophet of God and burst into sobs, while ‘Umar all the while closely followed behind me. The Prophet said: “What is the matter, Abū Hurayra?” I replied: “I met ‘Umar and told him of what you had sent me to do and he struck me in the middle of my chest”. He told him that he fell to the ground and that ‘Umar had commanded him to go back. We then read that when ‘Umar discovered that Abū Hurayra was telling the truth he said to the Prophet: “Do not do this. For I fear that people will come to rely upon this. Leave them to carry on as they are.” To which the Prophet replied: “In which case leave them then.”

Dr. Nājiya Bū ‘Ujayla states in her book On Agreement and Difference – the Duality of the Prevalent and the Marginalised in Ancient Islamic Thought, that on coming across this hadith concerning the Prophet, Abū Hurayra and ‘Umar:

it becomes clear from the dialogue that ‘Umar was not greatly concerned by the immediate circumstances of the incident, but rather by the issue itself, its merit and its reasonableness. This is because he did not alter his viewpoint on what Abū Hurayra brought until he learnt that it was the Prophet himself who had commanded it.

The Prophet Muhammad accepted  ‘human’ objection concerning the ‘divine’ communication

What is noticeable here is that this hadith clearly caused some jurisprudential ‘embarrassment,’ and included attempts by commentators to make their justifications and maintain assumptions and conceptions as beyond contest. An example of this is al-Shafiʽī’s confirmation, in an epistle written two centuries after this hadith, of the status of the Prophet’s Sunna as demonstrated in his words and deeds. Legal groundings such as these tasked themselves with polishing up early Islamic history so that these should harmonise with later legal concepts and uncontested assumptions, but modern criticism has confirmed that such points of ‘embarrassment’ are in fact very many in number. Imam al-Nawawī states in his commentary on this hadith, in defence of ‘Umar’s actions:

‘Umar’s striking [of Abū Hurayra] was not intended to fell him or injure him, but to express his response to what he was feeling. He punched him in the chest so as to express his objection. Qādī ʽIyād and other scholars stated: “ʽUmar’s actions and his referral to the Prophet did not constitute an objection to him or a refusal of his command, since all Abū Hurayra was doing was to console the hearts of the nation and give them good tidings. However, ʽUmar felt that concealing this would be better for them, that it was more appropriate if they did not rely on this, and that it would bring them greater benefit than hastening forward this good tidings. When he proposed this to the Prophet, the Prophet agreed with him.

Imam al-Nawawī did not neglect to extract from the hadith some jurisprudential benefits, forgetting or rather pretending to forget, that the matter was not some mundane issue but one that touched upon the Revelation of the Message, something that should demand an absolute obedience to it – as al-Shafiʽī (and al-Nawawī himself in his train) confirmed in many points in his commentary on the Sahīh. Al-Nawawī goes on:

In the case of this hadith, it is an absolute requirement that if a leader or a great person should have a view that some of his followers disagree with, it is incumbent upon the follower to submit it to the one whom they follow to look into it. If it appears to him that what the follower said is correct, he is to revert to that, otherwise he should clarify to the follower a response to the point of contention presented. And God knows best.

This hadith clearly caused some jurisprudential ‘embarrasment’

However, despite the fact that Imam al-Nawawī established for us that nothing in ʽUmar’s behaviour constituted an objection to the Prophet’s action, the context of the story runs against, and contradicts, this ‘highly embarrassing’ opinion concerning the hadith and the events it relates. The story also runs counter to the jurisprudential conclusion which became established in the second century AH. The aim of this conclusion was to establish for Muslims living about two centuries later (and in a way that goes far beyond the facts of the case) the developing status of the prophetic Sunna in the minds and understanding of the Prophet Muhammad’s Companions in the first years of the call to Islam.

Yet along with this, the same type of jurisprudential conclusion we saw in the opinion of Imam al-Nawawī elsewhere stresses that those parts of the Message that concern affairs of the next world are ‘more beneficial’ to the Nation due to the assumed pure divine origin of the Prophetic Sunna. Yet when it is embarrassed by events such as these that contradict its delusory view, it resorts to the type of justifications we read in Imam al-Nawawī. This event is not a mundane, banal matter, as is crystal clear to any unbiased reader, since it concerns glad tidings of things associated purely with the next world.

This hadith, in truth – and there are other hadith like it – flatly contradicts every jurisprudential conclusion that insists on obedience to the Prophet, even on matters where there is no Qur’ānic text, to a degree that entirely equates with a divine directive textually supported in the Qur’ān. This is confirmed for us by Imam al-Shafiʽī in his Epistle, and after him Ibn Taymiyya similarly confirmed this position as follows: “The Sunna was also brought down as a Revelation, just as was the Qur’ān.” Imam Ibn Hazm entirely agrees with him that the Prophet “did nothing that was not as a result of a Revelation.” But if this decision on a matter concerning the next world was a Revelation sent down to the Prophet, and that it was ‘most beneficial’ for the Nation, how was ʽUmar permitted to consult with the Prophet on this, and how was it permissible for the Prophet to consult on a matter concerning the ‘Revelation’ of his earlier opinion?

[1] The ‘oppressor’. The term tāghūt originally denoted a pre-Islamic idol, and thence by extension any object or individual that prevented mankind from doing good. In later discourse it was used to denote the ‘unjust ruler’ who is opposing God’s rule by ruling through a system other than that prescribed by God. (Ed.)

[2] Hasan Mohsen Ramadan, نقد نص الحديث : جهيمان العتيبي واحتلال الحرم المكي كمدخل (‘A critique of the Hadith Text: Juhaymān al-ʽUtaybī and the Occupation of the Meccan Mosque’), Dār al-Hasād, Damascus 2010.

Main picture: Illustration from al-Bīrūnī’s Al-Āthār al-Bāqiya

Gabriel communicating the Message to the Prophet – a divine communication subjected to human evaluation